Digital Solutions to Animal Tracking Problems

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Laureates of mathematics and computer science meet the next generation
Heidelberg Laureate Forum

Underlying the week of the HLF is a single purpose: Provide some of the brightest minds in mathematics and computer science with the space and time to make connections and find inspiration. Some of the connections made at the HLF will echo into collaborations and projects, with some of those efforts leading to concrete developments. The HLFF Spotlight series will unpack a few of those examples.

Dr. Oluwasefunmi T. Arogundade is an Associate Professor of Software Engineering and ICT for Development at the Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta, Nigeria. She leads the research team for the AlumNode sponsored project titled “Design, Deployment and Adoption of an Intelligent Animal Monitoring and Tracking System for Pasture and Range Management (NIMTrack)”. Oluwasefunmi is the team leader for Smartagro Research Team and presently on sabbatical at Anchor University Lagos till May 2021. She is a recipient of OWSD (2009), GWI (2011) and TWAS-DFG (2014) fellowships. She is an alumna of the 3rd HLF in 2015.

Dr. Abayomi-Alli Adebayo is a Senior Lecturer in Computer Science at the Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta, Nigeria. Adebayo’s research is centered on machine learning, pattern recognition and ICT for digitizing Agriculture (ICT4DAg). He helped to lead the AlumNode sponsored project titled “Design, Deployment and Adoption of an Intelligent Animal Monitoring and Tracking System for Pasture and Range Management (NIMTrack)”. Adebayo is a former research scholar at the Swanson School of Engineering, University of Pittsburgh, USA between 2014/2015. He is an alumnus of the 6th HLF in 2018.

Having a healthy network for alumni is a central focus of the Heidelberg Laureate Forum Foundation (HLFF) and an effective tool for providing opportunities as projects evolve and careers develop. As HLF alumni, Dr. Oluwasefunmi Arogundade and Dr. Abayomi-Alli Adebayo are active members of the AlumNode network, which awarded them a grant to develop an animal tracking device for livestock farmers. In a recent discussion with the HLFF, they detailed the developmental process of their project. Their efforts are not only an ideal model of success, they provide a recipe of ingredients researchers need to achieve an objective.

NIMTrack team and participants at workshop in February 2020.

“Being a scientist and a project leader, it takes determination, doggedness and diligence,” stressed Oluwasefunmi.

Plenty of obstacles are in place for researchers seeking funding for their projects: inexperience in writing attractive proposals, the sheer number of competitors coupled with limited financing, bureaucratic complications and an array of other possible hurdles. Many of these barriers are part of a necessary filtration system, which can be faulty at times. It can be especially challenging for scientists in developing countries to convince investors, but precisely due to these inherent adversities, it is so consequential when a project prevails.

“When you get such an international fellowship or recognition, it goes a long way to show that even in developing countries, we are also collaborating and trying to be at par with our colleagues in the Western or developed world,” explained Adebayo.

As computer scientists, Oluwasefunmi and Adebayo analyzed their surroundings and realized that mobile applications for farmers could make an impact. Agriculture is not only the central focus of their university, the Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta, it is also a keystone of the Nigerian economy. Livestock farming is lucrative, providing a healthy share of opportunity as well as dilemmas. They wanted to create digital solutions that were utilitarian for farmers and, in addition to persistence and ingenuity, two things were essential: a viable network and funding.

Being members of Organic Agricultural Practitioner in Tertiary Institutions in Nigeria solved the first issue and ensured they were thoroughly integrated into the community. Additionally, they discussed with colleagues in the animal science department of their university in order to hone their focus.

“What are your challenges that ICT can actually solve?” Oluwasefunmi frankly posed to a colleague.

Tracker being tested at the university farm.

Their colleague explained that they are having serious difficulty tracking animals and that rustling is on the rise. Though developed countries have methods for monitoring free-range animals, they are unrealistically expensive. Oluwasefunmi and Adebayo set out to create an affordable solution and needed funding, but obtaining grants is not for the faint of heart. Instead of being deterred, they rallied together and invested in learning to write watertight project proposals.

“When you write for grants, the funding (agency) just wants to know that you have experience in executing the project you are applying for, that you have experience in managing the funds,” explained Adebayo. “They must be able to trust you with their money.”

After writing 10 proposals, initial relief came with a small sum from a Nigerian governmental agency, which they used to design a prototype animal tracker that could be tested on the university farm. Though this was a major step forward, the prototype was clunky and connected using a Nigerian communications company, which had a weak internet connection on the farm resulting in spotty tracking data. The device needed to be smaller and more energy-efficient, hence they needed more money for research. They were approaching a standstill, but because they had remained active within the alumni network, an offer from AlumNode presented itself.

First prototype of tracker.

With their funds depleted, a €7,000 lifeline came from AlumNode that they used to develop a smaller and more effective tracking device. Using a small gateway, eliminating the need of a communication company, the improved tracker could be online 24/7 and had a long-range, low-power battery that didn’t require frequent charging. The grant not only allowed them to produce a device that matched their expectations, but there were also intangible benefits.

“AlumNode was the first international grant that we got, and because it’s coming from a funding organization outside the country, it gives us more leverage and more prestige,” added Adebayo.

They had substantiated their profile as researchers who were worth the investment and could make an impact, plus they had affirmatively reached a standard that could be presented to the livestock farmers in Nigeria. Now, the only question was which format would be most effective to present their results.

Organizing a workshop at their university was the clear choice seeing that few farmers would be able to read an academic paper in English. Yoruba is one of Nigeria’s major ethnic groups and is the predominant language in the area, so an interpreter was necessary at the workshop to translate their findings. Even though the logistics of getting participants to attend was complicated, it was here that their close connection with the agriculture cooperatives was pivotal.

“We have never been too far from farmers, even before AlumNode. So we were able to bring them together,” emphasized Oluwasefunmi. “We subsidized their transport, so they were able to come and they were so excited.”

Animal tracker in its current stage, opened to expose contents.

Through their workshop, they clearly demonstrated the animal tracker works, and works well. The feedback from the farmers was immediate and constructive, some asking if the device could be improved to detect an animal’s vital signs. Having such a productive exchange was helpful in mapping out the next steps.

“That is part of our future research, to be able to extend this research in such a way that the tracker could have sensors that test for liveliness,” said Adebayo.

With a room full of enthusiastic farmers and some even interested in immediately buying a tracker, the research group had to explain that it is still in the pilot stage and expensive to produce. They assured the participants that they are focused on expanding the project so the devices improve and become more affordable. For that to happen, they need more capital.

“If we can secure a bigger grant, we can actually take our architecture to companies that are in IOT (Internet of Things) and they can make it miniaturized, which can be hidden on the animals,” explained Oluwasefunmi.

Looking forward, Oluwasefunmi and Adebayo are certain it will remain challenging but are not daunted. Once they reach a level where the tracker can be produced on a large scale, it will have far-reaching and immediate consequences for farmers in Nigeria, foremost being an active deterrent to animal rustling. Despite being brought to an abrupt halt by the pandemic, they remain diligent, preparing what they can in advance.

Looking back, they are proud of what they accomplished and they were able to apply what they learned and adapt accordingly. They realized it is easy to get wrapped up in a single focus without putting general commitments on hold.

“I also learned to multitask. You have enough other research for other publications, we still have to manage this,” Oluwasefunmi pointed out. “So I have to be able to organize myself well. I dedicate a day in the week to think about these projects.”

Analyzing their strategy and execution, one decisive element was clear communication with their target group. They wanted to make an impact, but above all, they wanted to develop a digital solution that was relatable and practical. For researchers looking to secure an initial grant, they kept their advice pragmatic.

“Make sure you have selected something that you have experience with and that you will be able to execute successfully,” advised Adebayo. “Because every funding agency wants to be sure that when they give you the money, you will get the problem solved.”

Adebayo and Oluwasefunmi after their workshop.

Oluwasefunmi and Adebayo have the qualities that great researchers require, coupled with the vision that is needed to make concrete progress. It is gratifying to see such inspirational alumni active in the HLFF network and it is exciting to think about the ramifications of their tracker if produced on a large-scale. When taken into perspective, the anticipation pales compared to that of the farmers whose livelihood would be more secure.

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Wylder Bergman Green is a freelance writer, editor and translator. He received a degree in journalism, then moved to Germany from Texas in 2011 and worked for the HLFF communications team for over 7 years. He considers himself creative and enjoys telling stories with flowery language.

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